Supplier Monitoring Programs, Vol.2

Volume 2:  Creating Robust Specifications

Disclaimer:   This blog post contains graphic descriptions of bad product specifications.  Read at your own risk.  The examples of specifications contained herein are fictional and products have been modified to protect the privacy of individuals in the food industry.  The views expressed by the author are industry best practices and they are provided here as a comparative tool for the reader.  If you have questions about this disclaimer please contact us.

Quality Assurance is a hard job.  So many of the expectations for QA professionals can be summed up in two sayings:

The cow never stops giving milk.  AKA, please expect to work a minimum 60 hours a week and your work week actually contains 7 days….not just 5.  Product facilities run all the time.  There are always products reaching the end of that production line and someone from the QA team better be there to make sure each unit is perfect.  

The buck stops here.  Have you ever had to walk out to the floor and shut down a line?  I have.  It is dangerous position to be in.  You have supply chain pissed that they cannot fill orders on time and production is glaring at you because you just extended their day.  

Oh, you want something reworked?  You can blow that out your ear!  

But this is why QA exists, right?  To be the last catch-all for bad quality before real damage is done.  QA may have slowed down an order but they just saved your brand.  Respect.  

With many QA teams running lean on two shifts and under sizable pressure to release product….how can we best arm them for success?  Further, if I am relying on the QA teams of my suppliers--How do I communicate my expectations in a clear and concise format?  The answer is robust product specifications.  

When product development finalizes a new formulation, they are intimately in tune with the gold standard of that product. They also understand that during scale up there will be some variation in finished products, and they have set boundaries for what is and is not acceptable.  Unfortunately,  the product specification may only mention the formulation and processing parameters.  The ideal of the gold standard and the wiggle room for quality are often missing.  

This gap becomes a cavern where quality goes to die.  

Robust specifications should include details on formulation and process, but also physical parameters, performance parameters, and sensory descriptors and intensities for color, aroma, texture, and flavor.  Here are a couple of examples:

Sparkling Ginger Lemonade

Weak Specification:  formula, pasteurization and carbonation specs, color:  pale yellow, flavor: typical of lemonade

Robust Specification:  ++ let’s add in opacity, a range for acceptable color with a visual scale to be used at the line, descriptive analysis with quantitative intensities and commercially available references for easy comparison on the line (i.e. lemon intensity between 1:1 lemon juice:water and full strength juice), details of particulate matter allowed

Chocolate Chip Muffins

Weak Specification:  formula, process specs, color:  tan with chips, flavor: typical of yellow cake and chocolate chips.  

Robust Specification:  ++ let’s add in pictures to show crum and air pocket ranges for evaluation for the density of the muffin, a range for acceptable tan color with a visual scale to be used at the line, number and size of chocolate chips visible on the muffin top, descriptive analysis with quantitative intensities and commercially available references for easy comparison on the line

Robust specifications provide a clear handoff of the gold standard product.  They also give QA technicians visuals and references to use when they are on the line.  Their comparison must be done quickly so examples should be easy to understand and easy to access at any time.  Robust specifications are also hard to come by and difficult to create when you work with a variety of items.  This is the challenge for most QA professionals in food service and private label grocery.  QA professionals may not be knowledgeable with all product categories to write their own specifications and do not feel comfortable relying on their suppliers to write them.  (There is another saying in QA---something about a fox guarding the hen house?)  Might I suggest a third party?   Food Improved Consulting Group can bring the expertise and know how to create robust specifications.  

Let Food Improved Consulting Group build a strong foundation for your quality systems.  With 20 years in analytical testing of all foods and beverages, we can create specifications that communicate all of your quality expectations.